Flanders, Belgium

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious from the past month’s posts that I have become a pretty huge fan of Flanders. In reality, my trip to Belgium couldn’t have happened at a better time. I was a little sad about leaving Asia, and Flanders really brought the message home that Europe offers a very different, yet equally rewarding opportunity for exploration and discovery. Flanders was such an impressive destination that I thought it deserved a video. If all the towns seem almost implausibly beautiful, I’m afraid that’s just Flanders.

On a completely unrelated side note, I started laughing when I uploaded this to Youtube and discovered that our last destination video was on Sumba. Somehow, the contrast between tribal Sumba and fairy tale Flanders seemed funny to me. Can a person experience multimedia culture shock?

Belgian Desserts

If there’s one thing that brings Flemish and Walloons together, it’s dessert. Belgium marks the glorious border between Dutch and French inspired desserts making it a dream destination for the traveler with a serious sweet tooth (like me).

Of course, the country is synonymous with awesome waffles. Even bad waffles here are good by non-Belgian standards. There are as many topping options as there are recipes, so you will have to eat MANY, MANY waffles just to be sure that you don’t miss anything important. Bruges is great for waffle hunting. Interestingly, I walked by an endless supply of fancy restaurants with stunning waffles, but the waffle above at a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant topped with sour cherries and mounds of ice cream stopped me in my tracks. Resistance was futile Continue…

A Quick Look at Brussels

On several occasions in Flanders, I asked what is perhaps the most toxic question in Belgium: Is Brussels actually originally part of Flanders? On every occasion, I got exactly the same response. The friendly Flemish smile was replaced with an odd, hesitant expression which immediately conveyed, “Should my answer be honest or politically correct?”

If you look at a map, Brussels is a geographic island surrounded by Flanders. The city and its surrounding districts form a separate political division, a solution designed to minimize tensions between the Flemish and French halves of the country.

Architecturally, Brussels looks Flemish and it’s quite stunning, but French is clearly the dominant language. The difference in the city vibe is VERY noticeable. It’s hard to Continue…

Beautiful Bruges

As I said before in my Srinagar post, it seems that every city with canals is inevitably compared to Venice. Perhaps, they should be compared to Bruges instead. Simply put, beautiful Bruges is northern Europe’s most enchanting, atmospheric town. A stunning medieval canvas embroidered with lovely canals and cobblestone streets, Bruges is one of those rare, perfectly preserved fairy-tale destinations – which I personally love, love, love! Some, however, will disagree.

Filled with chocolatiers, cafes, horse-drawn carriages, candy shops, pubs and cute little boutique hotels, some will dismiss Bruges as one of those tourist traps artificially maintained to keep visitors happy. Lonely Planet Online goes out of its way to suggest Bruges is part fabrication, reminding us that much of its architecture was redone in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I, on the other hand, want to reach out and pat the Flemish on the back for Continue…

Belgian Beer

If you’re a fan of great beer, Belgium needs to be at the top of your Food-venture must-visit list along with Germany and the Czech Republic. This tiny country has an impressively diverse selection of great beers which range from the strictly defined (and certified) Trappist brews, including famous names such as Orval, to the more loosely defined Abbey beers, such as one of my personal favorites, the Grimbergen Optimo Bruno.

Do your homework before you visit Belgium because, for the non-beer connoisseur such as myself, the array of options can be overwhelming. Menus start easy with amber, blond and brown ales and quickly shift into high gear with options such as champagne beers, Flemish Reds, Dubbels, Tripels, Oud Brins, Saisons, and more.

One of the more interesting discoveries was the Lambics Continue…

The Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or the Polyptych of Ghent, just might be my favorite single piece of art in the world. Considering my travel history and the fact that I have always had a distinct preference for everything African and Asian, that’s a pretty strong statement. But this breathtaking painting and its history, which might have made a far superior fourth Indiana Jones movie, have certainly “converted” more people than me. Plus, this painting and I have a special connection.

It’s impossible to appreciate from the picture above – or any picture for that matter – but the painting is spectacularly three-dimensional with deep, rich colors which appear to have defied history. (I’m assuming amazing restoration is at least partially responsible for that last point.)

Painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck over a decade and completed in 1432, the painting is so exceptional and such a departure from what came before it that it Continue…

Ghent

Midnight in Ghent at a backstreet dock staring out at Gravensteen waiting for the moon to rise above its fortified walls. Total silence except for a night bird and the sound of a small boat bumping up against the stone quay. In Europe, it’s rare to have perfect moments to yourself in such a remarkable city. But apparently, Flanders is somewhat of an exception.

My first thought when I arrived in Ghent was, “Flanders clearly does not do ugly cities.” Again, Ghent is an overlooked treasure of a town which somehow seems to have slipped below the radar of world travelers scanning the globe for that perfect destination. Am I starting to sound like a broken record here in Belgium?

Although it may not be a household name for much of the world, in the late Middle Ages, Ghent was among the Continue…

Mussels from Brussels…

Or Ghent…. or Bruges… or Leuven… or, in my case, Antwerp.

Like stoofvlees, the dish known as moules-frites, mussels and fries, appears on restaurant menus across Belgium. So when Tourism Antwerp treated me to an amazing meal at Grand Café Horta (Hopland 2), I decided to forgo the lobster and try the mussels instead.

Grand Café Horta didn’t list any sides with the mussels. When I asked the waiter what Belgians ate with mussels, he laughed and answered, “Fries! This is Belgium, we eat fries with everything.” Clearly, I did not need to worry myself over such details. Instead, my choice revolved more around what style to order.

I chose wisely.

The waiter brought a huge pot of perfectly prepared mussels coated in a spectacular beer sauce. (Does it get more Belgian than that?) In addition, the chef added a delicious mustard-based dip on the side just in case the beer sauce wasn’t enough. YUM! If beer sauce is not your thing – which would be pure insanity Continue…

Mechelen

Well, now I’ve seen everything. I thought I was coming to just another insanely beautiful historical town centered around yet another ridiculously spectacular monster cathedral. But oh no, clearly the people of Mechelen do things a little differently around here. Very differently.

Emerging into the center of town via a boulevard of red-brick gingerbread gabled houses, I expected my highlight to be the famous Renaissance Town Hall. Instead, I discovered locals had decided to blanket the village square in a layer of sand and have a beach volleyball tournament. (My god, Flanders really is a festival! Do these people ever take a day off?) Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” echoed across the makeshift medieval beach as dozens of super-fit, super-tanned Flemish served and spiked their way towards the prize. Wow!

But it’s not just the volleyball. Everything in this incredibly picturesque little village is just a bit edgier. From the floating footpath on the river Dyle to the 360-panoramic skywalk built into St. Rumbolt’s Tower, Mechelen is full of surprises. There’s even a fantastic brewery, Het Anker, located just behind the Continue…